My Kind of Clickbait

Can’t see the parse forest for the parse trees

Headlines can help you decide whether to read an article. In very few words, a good headline will provide the right amount of detail for the reader to decide whether to read the article it tops or links to. Done well, headlines are sublime, and we should praise their writers for the tough job they sometimes have to do. Headlines can mislead, especially in the clickbait world of revenue generation. But is that really anything new?

My favourite headlines are those which make me think, chuckle, or are just a little too good with the word play. Whilst I do not wish to belittle the current ailment that keeps Prince Philip in hospital, the headline on the BBC website from 23rd February certainly had me thinking of more humorous interpretations.

One chuckle was:

Poor hospital, it’s got an infection too.

Another:

Why would an ailing Prince Philip stay in a hospital that was already infected?

Finally:

Prince Philip gets to stay in a hospital with his friend, the infection in the bed next to him.

I wish Prince Philip a speedy and full recovery. He’s had a great innings of 99 so far. One more run and he receives an official telegram from his wife congratulating him on reaching 100 rather than a more traditional birthday card.

Headlines were not initially found in newspapers. Early editions of The Times show this well. Whilst you can see the number of different articles or advertisements, actually knowing what the article was about would not immediately be forthcoming until holding the newspaper in your hand and reading it. That involved the passing of money from the potential reader to the vendor. In order to facilitate the amount of money one newspaper could accumulate versus another, headlines appeared in the late 18th century as competition between the UK newspapers increased. Clickbait is not a new. It may be a new word, but it is a modern web-based equivalent of activities the press barons have been finessing since the late Victorian era.

Since then, headlines have not only encouraged sales but also much humour, word-play and head scratching.

Headline writers having fun and leaving the reader somewhat in disbelief.

Headline writers also like to play with words, as space is sometimes limited, words can get shortened, or slightly changed from their usual spellings (or meanings) to enhance the humour.

Moving on-line, courtesy of our friends in, of all places, Singapore. A country not known for its ‘gentle’ handling of drug related crime.

Lists of the greatest headlines of [insert period of your choice] exist. Search engines being your friend, go hunt some down. The BBC ran a poll in 2006 to identify memorable British newspaper front pages froma 100-year period. The problem with lists like these is that no one can really agree on their content. Whilst the front pages selected are certainly memorable, I feel a little deflated with a couple of the actual headlines. These need to be complete packages and not just memorials of significant events. The final list does show well how visually newspaper front pages have changed through that period.

My interpretation of the Prince Philip BBC headline differs from the headline writer wanted. There are many occasions, either deliberate or accidental, where headline writers end up delivering ambiguous copy. It has been happening for as long as headlines have been a part of the newspaper arsenal. Ever since “MacArthur Flies Back to Front” after the “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans”, headline writers have walked the tightrope of hoping that readers don’t snigger at their efforts. Punctuation in headlines is sparse. With limited context available, the reader reads nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns. It’s easy to understand why ambiguity does creep in and much hilarity erupts from the page.

Ambiguous headlines are called ‘Crash Blossoms’. The name derived courtesy of the Testy Copy Editors web forum. The Japan Times in August 2009 published the above headline which was subsequently reworked to ‘Violinist shirks off her tragic image’. Until then, ambiguous headlines were not subject to a name or term. One fortunate person, with the appropriate surname of Bloom, suggested ‘Crash Blossoms’ very early in the web forum discussion and the name stuck.

Not sure what the Testy Copy Editors would have named ambiguous headlines, if the above was the headline provided: ‘Holy Grails’ or ‘Hot Potatoes’? Neither is pleasing, and crash blossom is an apt moniker. Crash gives the immediacy of something not going as expected. A loud noise. Freeze-frame recollection of key events. The big bold typeface of a headline? Blossom adds beauty and calm. The fleeting and delicate nature of petals matching the life-expectancy of a headline in someone’s memory. Today’s headline is tomorrow’s chip wrapper.